Washington Hall Returns
For the last seven years since it was purchased by Historic Seattle, Washington Hall has been a community resource in flux. It’s taken that long—and some $9.8 million in renovations—to overhaul the building and ready its return to the diverse community it has served for more than 100 years. As of the grand-reopening on June 10 (the celebration recreated Seattle’s first-ever documented jazz performance, held at Washington Hall in 1918), the stately old edifice with the incredible backstory is once again home to community organizations and available for rent to the public.
“Historic Seattle has been instrumental in saving buildings,” says the nonprofit development agency’s executive director Kji Kelly, citing Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center and Pioneer Square’s Cadillac Hotel has examples. “We’ve learned you can’t just save the building’s bones. You need to bring the building’s heart and soul back to it as well.”
Kelly attributes that heart and soul to the building’s anchor partners: 206Zulu, Hidmo and Voices Rising. 206Zulu co-director Kitty Wu describes the organization as “a music and arts program for families around music and food. Our events are the type you can bring your grandma and little sister to.” Voices Rising is a nonprofit that produces an ongoing series of performances by LGBTQ performers of color. Hidmo began as an Eritrean restaurant and event space in the Central District, not far from Washington Hall, and grew into a presenter of cultural and community events; it will helm the newly built café and continue its role in supporting a wide range of performances and traditions, with an emphasis on black cultural heritage.
“I remember the first time I came in,” Wu says. “I saw the door cracked open and came in and started bawling—what did we get ourselves into? It needed so much work at that point.”
Historic Seattle led major structural upgrades to the interior, the roof and the south wall to keep the building standing. It renovated dilapidated plaster, flooring and other cosmetic problems and restructured the upstairs and downstairs office spaces. Wu cites the new basement recording studio and fully ADA-compliant stage as major victories for accessibility.
Washington Hall was originally constructed in 1908 by the local chapter of the Danish Brotherhood of America. At that time, the Danish Brotherhood used it for meetings and rented single-occupancy rooms in the building’s rear quarter to recent Scandinavian immigrants searching for housing and employment. From the outset, the Brotherhood rented the hall to wildly diverse groups and organizations. In its early years it hosted celebrations and ceremonies for Seattle’s Italian, Filipino, Jewish and African-American communities; it was especially crucial to the latter, who were often barred by Jim Crow laws from gathering in other public halls. A long list of jazz-era notables performed there, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In the ’50s and early ’60s it held weddings and teen dances, including one that featured Jimi Hendrix’s high school band.
In the early ’70s, a group called the Jesus People rented the bulk of Washington Hall to house what many people feared was a religious cult. In ’73, the Danish Brotherhood sold the building to the Sons of Haiti, an African-American masonic lodge, who ran it with a similar, community-based focus. On the Boards staged performances there from 1978–1998, during which time Washington Hall also hosted bands like Fugazi and Elvis Costello and incubated Seattle’s nascent hip-hop scene by holding all-ages performances and Youth Speaks events. Over the decades and through so many tenants, the building had fallen into disrepair. The Sons of Haiti sold it to Historic Seattle in 2009.
“The bones were in good shape,” Kelly says, “even if they were buried under layers of bad paneling and asbestos tile. We didn’t have to do much but bring it back to its original state and open it back to the community.”
“Imagine if we tore down Washington Hall and went with another condo project,” he continues. “Imagine the history and meaning we would’ve lost.”